It beggars belief how this thrilling, absorbing match between the top two sides so far this season finished 0-0.
Josep Gombau was able to name an unchanged side from last week’s 2-1 win over Melbourne City. This meant he continued with the usual 4-3-3, with Awer Mabil and Cirio flanking Bruce Djite upfront.
Graham Arnold was forced into one change from the 2-0 win against Central Coast Mariners, with captain Alex Brosque out injured and so Chris Naumoff starting for the first time in this A-League season.
Sydney attempt to press
The main tactical talking point put forward by our Five Things for this round was the impact of losing Brosque on Sydney’s press, which has been very effective in recent weeks in shutting down Brisbane Roar and Central Coast Mariners. Brosque is excellent at reading the game as to identify the right time to press, and closes off passing angles excellently to force opposition defenders to play a certain way – when complemented by similarly energetic closing down by the rest of the front four, it’s incredibly difficult to play around, as Brisbane in particular found to their cost.
Here, without Brosque, Bernie Ibini was surprisingly switched into a central role. However, when considering that Ibini played under Arnold for a long time at the Mariners, it was a logical move wherein Arnold could get a player who understands the system in a position crucial to the tactical plan he had devised to counter Adelaide’s attempts to play out from the back. Adelaide, of course, under Gombau always look to retain possession, and were always going to build up with short passing in deep position. It was a question of firstly, how high up Sydney would press, and secondly, whether they would specifically man-mark Isaias, the #6 who acts as the fulcrum through which Adelaide advance attacks into the middle third.
Ibini’s role here was to block passes into Isaias, at times man-marking but mostly simply sitting around him so that the two Adelaide centre-backs couldn’t pass into him. Marc Janko, the central striker, worked hard to close down either centre-backs, while the wingers, Corey Gameiro and Naumoff, blocked off the passing lane into the full-backs, as Sydney began pressing high up the pitch on Adelaide’s back four.
However, this was an excellent demonstration of one of the star qualities of Gombau’s side – their ability to identify the opposition’s defensive patterns, and adjust their structures for laying out from the back accordingly. Here, the key was the willingness of the centre-backs, Nigel Boogard and Osama Malik, to move forward on the ball into midfield. They were able to do so because Ibini was concerned about marking Isaias, and Janko couldn’t cover the distance between both centre-backs by himself. Throughout the opening twenty minutes both centre-backs, but Malik in particular, were able to work the ball into the final third by pushing forward when in possession and breaking that first line of pressure from Sydney.
Malik finished as the game’s highest passer (77), with Boogard close behind (75).
Adelaide also rotated positions in the midfield zone to escape Sydney’s pressure. Isaias constantly varied his position and often moved high up the pitch to drag away Ibini, with James Jeggo dropping in to take his place and ensure there was an option deep at the base of midfield. Furthermore, when the centre-backs moved forward, it sometimes pulled Ibini across to apply pressure – which meant Isaias was free, and they could play a quick ball to the #6 who would then work the ball forward. This pattern of play demonstrated Adelaide’s improvement in adapting to the opposition’s pressing structure, and finding an alternate way to play out.
There were a few occasions where Adelaide made mistakes when playing out, which led to Sydney counter-attacks. One was the Gameiro shot brillantly blocked by Boogard after Janko had forced an error, and another was when Isaias made a cheap pass that put Tarek Elrich under pressure.
Adelaide man-mark in midfield
While the first ten minutes were more even, this game, like last week in the Adelaide v City match, eventually settled into Adelaide control, thanks to their dominance of possession. They were comfortably able to work the ball forward into 1v1 situations down the flanks, and had two good chances from set-pieces via fouls won in wide areas – Carrusca hit the post, and then scuffed a shot off a clever low cross into the area from the opposite side, with Mabil’s follow-up shot cleared off the line.
Adelaide again man-marked in midfield when out of possession. Here, Jeggo was on Terry Antonis, and Marcelo Carrusca on Milos Dimitrijevic, while Isaias marked Ibini.
Jeggo and Carrusca worked hard to occupy Sydney’s midfield duo, and prevented Arnold’s side from playing through them. It was a contrast to last Sunday where the Mariners failed to do so, meaning Antonis and Dimitrijevic finished as the game’s highest passers, and created a stream of chances with their steady distribution out wide. Here, they struggled to get on the ball, and were far less influential.
Djite marks Petkovic
Interestingly, when Sydney were in the ‘reset’ position -i.e, at a goal kick, or when the centre-backs were building up play from a deep position – Adelaide centre-forward Bruce Djite made sure to occupy Nikolai Petkovic. He often sat on top of, or angled his run, so that Sydney couldn’t play into the left-sided centre-back, instead forcing them to play out through right-sided centre-back, Sasa Ognenovski.
Clearly, Gombau had identified Petkovic as being key to Sydney moving the ball forward, and this is a pattern that goes back to when the Western Sydney Wanderers modified their pressing structure in the Derby so that Sydney had to pass to Ognenovski. Indeed, Ognenovski is much clumsier on the ball than Petkovic, who often hits accurate, long passes into attack. Without that avenue here, Sydney struggled to play out effectively.
Full-backs bring it forward
Instead, Sydney’s best chances came when the full-backs carried the ball past the Adelaide wingers and created 2v1 situations out wide. The full-backs, Ali Abbas and Sebastian Ryall, were wasteful with their crossing, but still created dangerous moments – one example was when Janko was played in by Abbas surging forward down the left, with the resulting cut-back seeing Craig Goodwin nearly bundle in an own goal.
The main theme by this stage was of Adelaide’s control, however.
Sydney sit deeper
This seemed to prompt Arnold to instruct his side to sit slightly deeper, in what would be termed a ‘medium block’. The distinguishing difference was that they stopped pressing high up on Adelaide’s centre-backs, but instead sat off into two clear banks of four in midfield and defence, with the wingers tracking back alongside the central midfielders.
This continued after the half-time break, with Ibini no longer occupying Isaias as strictly. Instead, he and Janko tucked in tight and narrow, making the side compact from back to front. This meant Isaias dropped in more to create a 3v2 overload at the back, but because Sydney were defending in numbers, there was less space for him to pass into.
Where Adelaide did have chances, however, was when Carrusca drifted into the left channel and overloaded Sebastian Ryall. With Bruce Djite having to go off at half-time with a quad injury, Goodwin had been pushed higher up the pitch (with Cirio going central, and substitute Michael Marrone on at right-back). Twice in the second half, Carrusca found space high up the left, overlapping past Goodwin and getting into good positions – like when his cross across the face of goal nearly found Mabil at the far post.
Tarek Elrich, now at left-back, got forward too to overload Ryall, so the majority of Adelaide’s attacks came down this left hand side.
Sydney grow into game
Arnold’s response was to bring on Alex Gersbach, a left-back, and shift Ali Abbas initially onto the left, but then across to the right, where he tucked in narrow and helped protect Ryall against being overloaded. It didn’t stop Ryall getting a silly yellow card for a rugby tackle on Goodwin late on, which saw him replaced by Pedj Bojic for fear of a red, but Abbas moving high up did make Sydney more solid.
That, coupled with a more direct approach that saw Sydney bypass the man-marking in midfield by simply playing longer balls from the back towards Janko, meant they grew into the game more as the second half progressed. Their best chances came off set-pieces, where Adelaide simply looked very shaky. Sydney varied their moves from corners, and Adelaide just couldn’t cope. Ryall nearly scored with a header which was just saved by Boogard’s diving header, then Nikolai Petkovic should have had a goal after scoring direct from a free-kick, and Janko hit the post off the subsequent re-take.
The fact that Sydney were sometimes going short, and Adelaide were still being caught out, suggested the problem is not so much systemic as it is simply a glaring weakness within the squad. It’s an area Gombau’s side look very vulnerable, especially after they lost Djite, who offers height that can otherwise be absent in what is a fairly short team.
With twenty minutes to go, Arnold put on Shane Smeltz for Gameiro, switching Ibini to the left. This accentuated Sydney’s direct play, although Adelaide had more chances to win it in the final minutes.
Marcelo Carrusca’s glaring miss right at the end illustrated how open the game had been, and a number of chances went begging simply because of poor finishing. In the scheme of the tactical battle, these chances were because Adelaide successfully nullified Sydney’s initial high press, changing their structures for playing out intelligently so that the ‘free’ players, the centre-backs, were able to take advantage of the space and work the ball into the final third.
When Sydney sat slightly deeper and more compact, Adelaide became less dominant, but in an open game, still managed to have a number of good opportunities. Gambia will simply rue his side’s finishing, but from Arnold’s point of view, it’ll be encouraging that his side were able to switch to a different and slightly more successful approach, demonstrated further by their more direct attacking in the final period of the match. He has created a very adaptable team, and away from home, this was a good point against a strong side.